Conde Nast Kicks Off New Year With Hugs and Kisses

RUB THE SLEEP out of your eyes, kiddies, and welcome home!

For years, the month of January has sent a cold winter chill down the spine of Condé Nast employees. It’s the time of the Si Surprise! He returns to work from his December vacation spot in Vienna, takes a look at the numbers, waves his magic wand and sends some part of his company into hysteria. (Remember last January? He folded Domino.)

But this year?

It’s a warm and cuddly Condé! CEO Chuck Townsend is taking time over the next few weeks to sit down with staffers at every magazine, hold their hands and tell them that everything is going to be just fine. 

“It’s a rah-rah speech,” said one attendee of his talk.

Basically, Mr. Townsend has been saying what you might expect-how last year was pretty terrible (hundreds laid off, six magazines folded) and that there’s reason for hope now. Some magazines are already looking at a better first quarter! And there’s a slide show!

“Lots of charts and graphs, you know,” said another attendee. “Where’s Condé against other companies? How much audience is up. Stuff on the GQ app.”

It’s Townsend with Personality. In the past, Condé Nast hasn’t really been keen on internal communications. And who needed them? Every magazine ran fine on its own! But last year, in mid-July, when Mr. Townsend sent a note to staffers explaining that executives had to “rethink” the company, everyone was baffled why he chose that moment to become so chatty. For the most part, it freaked everyone out.

Now that the McKinsey-inspired cuts are done, there’s a full-court press to get him out there, to make Mr. Townsend the warm and approachable face of the company instead of, say, the steely, cold figure that staffers interpreted him to be for years.

And, naturally, the effort is only sort of working. Mr. Townsend hasn’t entirely gotten over the boilerplate, business jargon that he’s so used to using. (“We created a more efficient cost structure, reconfigured our businesses, developed even more inventive, integrated marketing and sales programs, and refined our prowess in consumer marketing,” read one, well, not-so-welcoming sentence in an email to the entire company sent out before the holidays.)

“It was really terse,” said one reader of that email.

“I delete them,” said one staffer when asked about Mr. Townsend’s emails. “I don’t even read them. It’s empty words. It tells you nothing. It doesn’t give you any insight into the strategic direction.”

But in the coming days and weeks, everyone at Condé will be hearing his thoughts, filtered through that lockjaw-Maryland accent, up close and in person, even if what he’s saying is high on optimism and low on specifics for the future.

Mr. Townsend has already gone down to Delaware to visit Condé back-offices. He’ll soon fly out to the West Coast to visit the likes of Wired, and he’ll be sitting down and meeting with New York magazines this week (The New Yorker‘s meeting was on Tuesday). (Back in December, he joined Richard Beckman at a town hall meeting for the Fairchild group at the Times Center-a rare public appearance that foretold his future efforts.)

As for the rank-and-file Condé Nasters: The bad news appears to be over, and everyone can rest easy that there won’t be a sudden, shocking business decision handed down from top management in the coming weeks.

“I can’t imagine any surprises at this point,” said one insider. “All of 2009 was all one big surprise.”

More on Condé Nast from John Koblin:

Is That Condé You’re Wearing? Publisher May License Brands

Despite Dismal Year, Condé Nast Revives Holiday Hurrah

Conde Nast Kicks Off New Year With Hugs and Kisses